On the train on our way back to The North, I read Jeannette Winterson’s fabulous memoir Why be happy when you can be normal?
Appropriate reading since it’s about her childhood in Accrington, emblem of The North if there ever was one. I also seem to recall reading Oranges are Not the Only Fruit on a train, at least two decades ago. This treads on some similar territory, in the way that only someone so reflective can tell the same story from a completely different moment in life.
Winterson’s book is pretty searing and explicitly points to a lot of the themes she recursively touches in her writing. It’s compelling but not my experience, until she describes the Pennine hills. Finch’s house overlooks the Ribble Valley, perched on the opposite side of Pendle Hill, and I am just beginning to feel the depth of the place.
Winterson writes about how there was no room for dreaming in the slate-topped, grey houses of the Northern towns, but
The Lancashire Pennines are the dreaming place. Low, thick-chested, massy, hard, the ridge of hills is always visible, like a rough watcher who loves something he can’t defend, but stays anyway, hunched over the ugliness human beings make. Stays scarred and battered but stays.
If you drive along the M62 from Manchester toward Accrington where I was brought up, you will see the Pennines, shocking in their suddenness and their silence. This is a landscape of few words, taciturn reluctant. It is not an easy beauty.
But it is beautiful.
Laying aside Finch’s assertion that it’s not actually the M62 one would drive to Accrington, there’s something in here that I’m just beginning to understand. I feel like, over the last month, I’ve dipped my toe into ex-pat land, the possibility of being in England in a more fixed way like a cardigan slung over my shoulders.
I’m not wearing it yet, or even trying it on, but I’m beginning to understand that it’s not “England” I’m talking about, but the North, and the rural North. Stereotypes I have about the English and England are sort of ripening and falling like chestnuts or overripe berries, not really being split but being replaced by a different kind of understanding that I can’t quite articulate yet. Understanding The North is part of understanding Finch, but it’s also part of feeling like these hills have an accent, an eloquence of their own.
I can’t fully decipher the accent yet — though I’m getting better at not being thrown by broad Lancashire among people in shops — and I’m understanding how Finch’s accent softens and brrrrls when he’s really relaxed, echoes of his Yorkshire people. I’m still figuring out what the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South have to do with his imagination. But I know that this landscape calls me. And it includes daffodils in the lawn in February.